Ian Hacking

  • In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran
    Oxford, 348 pp, £20.99, November 2002, ISBN 0 19 514930 0

Scott Atran packs a lot into his subtitles. ‘Evolutionary Landscape’: that’s the new idea in this book about gods. The human mind has evolved with numerous capacities. Each distinct capacity is well adapted to performing a group of tasks in its domain. Individuals possess these capacities in varying degrees, but they are part of the universal genetic inheritance of the human race. For example, the capacity for stereoscopic vision is a human birthright, though some of us have a severe squint, have lost an eye, or have brain damage. Atran urges that these capacities are prominences – mountains – in a landscape, and that natural selection is the core explanation of how they got there. The landscape can also account for many aspects of human beings for which there is no adaptive value. For example, the human race has a pervasive tendency towards religious conviction. This is not because religious conviction is well adapted to survival: quite the contrary. Religion does make use of evolved capacities, but it is able to do so because those capacities overstep the domains to which they are adapted.

There are shades of Kant here (he is not, I think, mentioned in the book). Kant taught that pure reason, which is great for what it is supposed to do, oversteps its bounds and falls into all manner of awful intellectual pits. Atran’s thought is analogous. We are innately disposed to religious commitment because our cognitive landscape makes belief in gods and the supernatural extraordinarily easy. So easy, in fact, that religion is not going to go away. In this, the book registers a core problem for the rationalist atheist. Atran calls himself agnostic, but no matter. Certainly, no form of theism, be it mono, poly or pan, is on the cards as a live possibility in this book: the beliefs are implausible and the practices are demanding. Atran gives endless examples from anthropology, but we need go no further than the Anglican creed. It speaks of a man crucified, dead and buried, who descended into hell, rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven. Part of that is quite straightforward. This man was well and truly dead, but he came back to life. We believe it, even if we have never seen the like. But the rest of the story is so far from straightforward as to make no sense at all: this man, according to the creed, ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God – who is disembodied but has a right hand.

Furthermore, the Church of England is quite expensive to maintain. Many Anglicans devote a lot of time and energy to their faith, though nothing like the vast amount of labour, talent, loving concern and gross national product that once went into Ely cathedral and its companions. Religions demand time, energy, material goods, and often the sacrifice of lives. In Atran’s summary, ‘religion is costly, counterfactual, and even counterintuitive.’ So how, he asks, is it that religious beliefs and practices are manifest anywhere there are people, past or present? How could evolution have favoured wasteful investment in preposterous beliefs?

Atran does not deny that religion has its uses. Faith helps soldiers resist the terror of battle, and it consoles mothers who lose their sons. At a more social level, it helps groups cohere, and fosters communal action. But that is not ‘why’ it is there in the first place, as a human universal. It is, Atran argues, a consequence of a misapplication of adaptive capacities. His task is to identify the capacities for us, sketch their adaptive value, then explain how they are systematically open to misapplications that engender our penchant for religion. Quite a project.

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